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The Chrysanthemum and the Sword Paperback – January 25, 2006
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War always imposes strange tasks, from deciphering codes to building unprecedented weapons. But Benedict’s task might top them all for hubris: the thought that the culture, mores and traditions of the Japanese nation could, not only be laid bare, but actually *understood* by foreigners for the purpose of recommending how to reconstruct it after a devastating world war. Add the fact that this was requested by the conquering military and subject to bureaucracy and deadlines and the odds against its success look distressingly high.
But Benedict succeeded not only in her primary task but set a gold standard for cultural understanding. In a new foreword to this edition, noted Japan scholar Ian Buruma (author of “Inventing Japan”, among many others) rightly lauds how Benedict seemingly didn’t have a biased bone in her body: she approached Imperial Japan utterly fresh, not seeing it through a Western (or any other cultural tradition) lens. Her job required she not only see the world as the Japanese did at the time, but *how* that worldview led to their empire’s wartime actions and *what* could therefore be done to stop (or at least ameliorate) it – thereby ensuring that it didn’t happen again.
To these ends, some of the detail Benedict unearths still has the power to astound – consider:
Imperial Japan didn’t attack China, other East Asian countries, or even the United States to conquer land or achieve some other aggressive purpose; rather, its stated wartime aim was to simply “restore its rightful place in the world” (which was seen at the time as insufficiently lofty). Benedict points out the Japanese placed immense stock in the world being in “proper balance” and their view that every nation must “take its proper place in the world”. She notes Japanese envoys – on the very day Pearl Harbor was attacked by Imperial Japan – handed an explicit example of this as a memorandum to American Secretary of State Cordell Hull: “The Japanese government cannot tolerate the perpetuation of the present situation since it runs directly counter to Japan’s fundamental policy to enable each nation to enjoy its proper station in the world.”
Other cultural markers are subtler but no less revealing. Whether it’s living one’s life as if in constant emotional – or even physical – debt (*on*, or obligations passively incurred), attempting to ease such debts to authorities (e.g., the emperor, one’s parents), or repaying debts via duties (*giri*) to the world (!) and one’s name (reputation), the mid-century Japanese view of life was, to put it mildly, radically different from anywhere in Europe or America. Benedict is numbingly thorough in explaining how a society – and by extension a government and military – functioning along these lines found its way into a global war.
I found very little here to dislike; as noted, Benedict succeeds in her near-impossible task so well it seems unduly argumentative to quibble. About the only perspective I found myself wanting was more comparisons with western societies around the same time (e.g., late ‘40s); this would be especially useful for a reader (like your reviewer) reading this over seven decades later. Admittedly this would have made for a much longer book and would have begged differences between Europe, America and others.
No matter. ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ holds up supremely well and reads as a veritable textbook of cultural research. In a world where misunderstandings across nations can have ever-graver consequences, rehabilitating the humble role of cultural anthropologist might pay some unexpected dividends – providing those taking it on have a reasonable fraction of Ruth Benedict’s insight.
To me, as an enthusiastic learner of Japanese, a devoted watcher of Japanese films, and reader of Japanese books (still, alas, in translation),.this book has given a key to understanding some of the dialogues, scenes...
Truly, I recommend reading this book.
Of course, after reading it, some surprises still will be awaiting.
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